When Bill Zito took over as general manager of the Florida Panthers in 2020, one thing he knew he had to change was the team’s culture.
But these were not empty words or a popular turn of phrase.
The Panthers, even when Zito took over, had talent. Everyone knew this. But something was missing.
In his first move as general manager, just weeks after replacing Dale Tallon, Zito pulled off a headline-making trade.
Florida sent a promising-yet-disappointing defenseman in Michael Matheson to the Pittsburgh Penguins for two-time Stanley Cup champion forward Patric Hornqvist.
While the Penguins were eager to send the aging Hornqvist to the Panthers for a young defenseman who needed a change of scenery, it was Florida who needed exactly what Hornqvist brought.
“This is a guy who just competes like a warrior,’’ Zito said when the trade was finally completed following some complications.
“We are looking for leadership, we’re looking for compete, we’re looking for people who want to win. He’s a winner. That’s the best way to describe it right? He’s just a winner.”
Hornqvist’s impact on the Panthers has perhaps been more profound than Zito had originally thought.
And the Panthers are missing his on-ice intensity right now.
The Penguins are in Sunrise on Thursday night and Florida will be without No. 70 for a sixth consecutive game.
Hornqvist, who has been a stalwart on Florida’s fourth line, has been out of the lineup since sustaining a concussion on Dec. 3, a game after he played in No. 900.
Florida placed him on long-term injured reserve, and although he practiced with the team on Wednesday, he will not be eligible to return until after the Christmas break.
Although Hornqvist has only one goal — and that was scored in the opener against the Islanders — there is no doubt the team is missing the intensity he brings on a nightly basis.
“Everyone knows that he is an incredible leader who leads by example and leads in the locker room by talking as well as yelling and screaming,” captain Sasha Barkov said. “It is a big loss. We may not have him in the lineup, but he is always around us and that helps. You walk by him and he’ll give you some kind of boost.’’
Added Sergei Bobrovsky: “He is a guy who brings the intensity and has all of that experience. He is a leader, a big piece of our team. We definitely miss him. He knows how to win, won the Cup twice and has been in all of the different situations. He is big for us, a big piece of our team.”
Hornqvist, who spent Wednesday afternoon visiting patients at the Salah Foundation Children’s Hospital at Broward General as part of the team’s holiday giveback, initially was not thrilled with the news that the Penguins had agreed to trade him.
With a no-movement clause and three seasons left on the five-year extension he signed with the Penguins in 2018, Hornqvist originally declined to waive his option.
Pittsburgh had become home to Hornqvist and his family, it was the place he became a Stanley Cup champion — and scored the Cup clinching goal in Game 6 against the Predators in 2017.
News had leaked of the trade but it was obviously held up on Hornqvist’s end as well as the Panthers trying to get those three years insured in case of injury.
Hornqvist, based on how he played throughout his years in Nashville and Pittsburgh, had a lot of miles on that odometer.
Still, the Panthers wanted Hornqvist and made that clear to him.
“My job is playing hockey and I was all-in right away,” said Hornqvist, who turns 36 on New Year’s Day.
“If one team doesn’t want me and the other team does, that’s an easy transition. Truth is, it was good for me and my family. It came in that Covid year and we were able to take our time to move down here, get into school and get to know my teammates. The transition was real easy.’’
Now, Hornqvist has become a big part of the new Panthers.
He has become not only one of the most popular players within the locker room, but within the community as well.
Hornqvist and his family have settled in Parkland, one of the few players living west of Federal Highway, and seems very happy to have found a new home.
But if you would have told him in 1994 when he went to a Panthers game at Miami Arena with his parents that he would be playing in the NHL in South Florida, he probably would not have believed it.
“I knew there was hockey here in Florida and it doesn’t matter where you play, my goal was always to make it to the NHL,” he said. “it doesn’t matter to me if I am on the beach or having snow up in the mountains.
“Of course, as I get a little older, I enjoy the sun a little more. You wake up and you feel refreshed right away. No one can take that away. And with the kids, life is easier here. They wear shorts and t-shirts to school, you don’t have to worry about big pants and big jackets.
“We just go with the flow down here. I always tell the young guys how fortunate they are to have the sun out every day. Don’t get too much of it, but take advantage of it and enjoy it.’’
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
PITTSBURGH PENGUINS AT FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Thursday, 7 p.m.
- Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida; ESPN+
- Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM 2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Last season: Florida won 2-1
- All-time regular season series: Penguins lead 54-35-7, 4 ties
- Up Next for the Panthers: Saturday at New Jersey Devils